VANCOUVER – It’s amazing how a few grams of fabric can feel like an anvil when things go poorly.
That little ‘C’ on Bo Horvat’s jersey weighs a lot more than it did a month ago, when the Vancouver Canucks‘ surprising start to the National Hockey League season seemed like a preamble to the team’s return to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Then the second month of the marathon season began.
The Canucks’ 5-3 win Wednesday against the Nashville Predators was their first in five games. Vancouver’s 9-3-2 start was followed by a 0-3-1 losing streak.
With 20 guys in the lineup and a catacomb of chambers off-limits to the media in the dressing-room complex, it’s not too hard for players to hide if inclined to do so. But you can’t hide when you’re the captain, and Horvat wore the losing streak.
But then, he was never one to hide.
“You can’t hide,” he said before the Nashville game, which was followed by a day off Wednesday for the Canucks. “People are going to say stuff and you’re going to talk to the media every single day, so you can’t hide in the shadows. You’re going to be in the spotlight all the time. That’s something I’ve learned really quickly, especially in a Canadian market, that you’ve got to be willing to step up.
“You wear that burden on your shoulders. You want to be the best leader you can be, on and off the ice. You want to be that guy who scores a big goal or gets the team going offensively. And right now, it’s just not happening for me. I’m just trying to be a positive guy in the room and not let this get me down.”
Horvat hasn’t scored in seven games and has just one assist during that time. Even more remarkably, he has only one even-strength goal this season and it came a month ago in St. Louis as a desultory five-on-three Vancouver power play ended.
It was one of six even-strength points among the 14 he has accumulated in 19 games so far. Last season, when Horvat scored 27 goals and 61 points despite playing with 30 different combinations of wingers, the two-way centre had 43 even-strength points – 70 per cent of his scoring.
With Horvat on the ice this year, the Canucks are outshooting opponents 170-150, but getting outscored 13-10. That kind of bad luck – and the disparity in save rates (.913 for Vancouver, .941 for the other team) – can’t continue. But that’s little consolation for Horvat.
Against the Predators, Horvat logged a career-high 27:06 of ice time. With third-line centre Brandon Sutter injured in the first period, Horvat somehow played 11:46 in the third period, including six of the final seven minutes. And still, he did not register a shot on net.
On his best chance to score, the rebound from linemate Jake Virtanen’s third-period shot bounced off Horvat’s shin and skipped inches wide of a semi-open net.
“The frustrating part is I feel like I’m spending zero time in my own end,” the 24-year-old said. “I feel like I’m getting my chances. It’s just not going in. Hopefully, it starts soon. I find I’ll get frustrated with myself because, again, you want to be the guy. It’s just in my nature to want to be the guy who makes a difference. But it can go the other way if you think about it too hard. I do get in my own way sometimes.”
“I think most players can get in their own way,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “The more times you go through little slumps. . . the better you are at handling it.
“With Bo, we always have to keep reminding him that when he plays a direct game, a power-forward, power-centre kind of game, that’s when he’s at his best, and not to get away from that game and try to score. If he just continues to do all the little things that he’s good at, that go unnoticed some nights, and plays that direct, hard game, he’s much more effective.”
Horvat was named captain on Oct. 9, so he passed his one-month anniversary on the weekend. In his first 12 games as captain, the Canucks lost once in regulation time. In the last week, they lost three times in regulation.
All of this is new to Horvat, who was groomed to be captain while the Canucks were hopelessly missing the playoffs the last four years.
“He’s playing well, playing hard,” Sutter said before he was injured Tuesday. “He just hasn’t got the goals. But just because he’s the captain, I don’t think he has to feel like he has to carry us. There are 18 of us out there. He just has to play well and be himself. He’s the same guy in the room; nothing has really changed. He’s still working hard, still looks strong on the puck. I don’t think we have to worry about him at all. Bo will be fine.”
“I’m not watching for highlight-reel goals, not watching for a tonne a points,” winger J.T. Miller said. “I’m just watching for the little things and I know Bo plays the right way. I know if I’m playing the right way, sometimes the stats come with it, sometimes they don’t. But when you play the right way, people see that and it can be contagious in the locker room.
“I’m sure Bo feels the same way. There’s a reason he is the captain; he brings it every night. I look up to him. If he’s going, people are going to follow.”
Horvat said he learned from previous captain Henrik Sedin and his brother, Daniel, that the most important part of leading is staying positive and being an example to others. In this way, he said, he wants to be the same leader whether the team is winning or losing.
“I try to be the same person and same player and same teammate,” he said. “I’m not going to speak up in the room all the time and say different things. I try to lead by example and not let that letter on my chest change me.”
The hardest thing about being captain?
“I don’t find dealing with the media too bad,” he smiled. “You’re going to take heat. I think the hardest thing is just trying to be at your best every single night, at the top of your game every single night, so guys can follow that.”